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Libya's political isolation law: confusion and charade

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How will this Political Isolation Law benefit Libya? The manner in which it was passed has set a precedent for rule by intimidation and has undermined Libya's transition towards democracy, justice and rule of law.

Rhiannon Smith
15 May 2013

The past week in Libya has been a rollercoaster of political upheaval marked by tension, frustration and in some cases celebration. This culminated on Sunday May 5 when Libya's legislative body, the General National Congress (GNC), voted overwhelmingly in favour of the controversial Political Isolation Law under which anyone who held a key official post between 1969 and 2011 will be excluded from political office for a period of 10 years. This law is likely to affect high-profile politicians who were leading figures in the 17th February revolution against Gaddafi including Mohamed Magariaf (the current president of the GNC), Mahmoud Jibril (former Prime Minister) and Mustafa Abdul Jalil (Chairman of the National Transitional Council).

Both the law itself and the circumstances under which it was passed are highly controversial and have stirred up a great deal of heated debate and division between various elements of Libyan society. Armed supporters of the law have been demanding its implementation for months, staging protests and blockades to try and force the GNC to pass the legislation. In the days leading up to the GNC vote, militias besieged a number of government ministries saying they would only leave once the Political Isolation Law was passed.

Most of these militias, or thuwar (revolutionaries) as they like to be called, claim they are defending the revolution by ensuring that Libya's new government is not corrupted by members of Gaddafi's former regime. However for many Libyans their actions (as well as the government's response to these actions) seem farcical at best, and at worst represent an alarming shift towards rule by intimidation as opposed to rule by elected representatives.

In a democracy all citizens have the right to protest, but this only applies to peaceful protest. As soon as you bring a weapon to a protest, or for that matter a flotilla of armed vehicles, what you are staging is no longer a protest but rather an armed attack or coup. When questioned about the presence of arms, a common response from the militiamen involved is that their weapons will not be used and are just to make people listen. Most seem unwilling or unable to understand that this constitutes coercion and intimidation and that bringing arms to a 'protest' is both illegal and reprehensible.

Another common justification for these ministry sieges is that there is still a revolution to be fought and therefore arms are necessary. Their argument is that there are still members of the previous regime in government and this is unacceptable given the number of people who lost their lives fighting to remove Gaddafi and his cronies. They want the Political Isolation Law passed to ensure that Libya's new ruling elite is free from all associations with Gaddafi's regime.

While in general this is a sentiment which most Libyans would support, the legislature which has been passed is so broad that it means those responsible for the most heinous crimes under Gaddafi's rule are effectively treated the same as those who held only low ranking positions. It doesn't matter whether these individuals opposed Gaddafi during or even prior to the 2011 revolution; the fact that at one point they served under him, whether they had any real power or not, means they will be excluded from political office under this new law.

More worryingly, the law is also very vague, which means that it is susceptible to political manipulation. By most accounts, it is the Muslim Brotherhood who stand to gain most once this law is implemented. Unlike its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood did not fare well in general elections last year and the word on the street is that the Muslim Brotherhood are the ones organising the ministry sieges, forcing the Political Isolation Law for their own personal gain.

These armed supporters of the Political Isolation law have come increasing under fire from the rest of Libyan society, attracting a flurry of condemnation on social media with support being expressed for the government and rule of law. A number of pro-government protests have also taken place in Tripoli. However although many Libyans support the government as their legitimate representatives, there is a great deal of frustration that security forces have done nothing to prevent these armed sieges and that the GNC essentially bowed to intimidation and passed the law under duress.

Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has argued that removing the militias by force could provoke unnecessary bloodshed: therefore he has preferred the negotiation route. Whilst this is understandable, the reality is that the Libyan authorities have sent a clear message to their country: if you use your weapons then you will get what you want. Indeed, the day after the law was passed, militiamen were still surrounding the Foreign and Justice Ministries, this time demanding that Ali Zeidan leave his post as PM (as a diplomat but not an ambassador under Gaddafi it is likely he will be able to remain in his post once the new law comes into force).

It is difficult to see how this Political Isolation Law will benefit Libya. The manner in which it was passed has set a precedent for rule by intimidation and has undermined Libya's transition towards democracy, justice and rule of law. Its application will mean the removal of key political figures creating more political confusion, chaos and instability. Furthermore, the tension and frustration which has been generated within Libya because of this debacle could eventually boil over and lead to more conflict, resulting in yet a further step back on Libya's long road to freedom.

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